Peter Orner: Three Stories
(from Issue Two)
DOWN THE ROAD from my father’s house, the house I grew up in, there’s a bluff that overlooks Lake Michigan. There’s a fence and a sign that says Private Property. But who can own a view of Lake Michigan, Queen of the Great Lakes? I’d jump the fence, the place was mine. Some prick wants to build a fence and put up a sign, what do I care? I’d sit and watch the lake, pluck weeds, kick at the trees that were barely hanging on to the ground. Erosion would send them over the cliff sooner or later. Over the edge, you could see the carcasses of fallen trees, roots up like festoons of pubic hair. Every year the bluff got smaller. Now the edge of it is at the fence line, so there is no longer any place to sit and watch the lake unless you sit on the fence itself. But it has been years since I’ve been anywhere near my father’s house.
Once I took Joanna Frank to the bluff. She knew how to carve a pipe from an apple. We got a little stoned, more stoned. Joanna had a croakish laugh. She made me feel funny, even brilliant. She was someone else’s girlfriend. I delivered pizzas for Piero’s. Joanna worked the register. We both said we wanted to quit. It was only a matter of time. We were destined for greater things than Piero’s. Weren’t we? From up on the bluff, the lake in the dark was a massive, swallowing thing. But the sound of it was like a murmur. The tide, that shoving noise, that pulling away noise.
It was April. The ground was wet. Joanna took off her shoes and tossed them over the edge of the bluff. Then she took off her jacket and laid back down on it and laughed, croaked. Then she lifted her feet in white socks up over her head, held herself up by her hips and laughed some more, said more to the lake than to me, “Want to fuck?”
We didn’t. We smoked the apple. Later we tried and fell asleep on top of each other in the middle of trying.
Before that we listened to the lake. That shoving, that pulling away. Off our bluff was a wreck, or so my father used to claim. Three miles out, he said, was a steamship that sank on its way back to Milwaukee. 400 drowned. The debris washed up on the beach for weeks. Suitcases, somebody’s belt, a cabbage. I thought of all those old bones in cold water beneath the smooth sands. I was alive. I couldn’t have been more alive. I must have been numb. I must have been benumbed. Joanna Frank’s body in the April wet. Her feet in white socks up in the air like that, floating, pale, separate from her legs, separate from us—
“There’s a bunch of drunk Milwaukeeans out there in the water,” I said.
“No doubt,” Joanna said.
JOANNA FRANK. I dial her phone number sometimes. Her mother still lives in town. I hang up. Her mother calls back. Who are you, she says. And what on earth do you want?
Later when we tried, Joanna apologized for her sweaty palms. She said she had a condition, that she wasn’t nervous. She said it would take a lot more than the third-string delivery boy to make her nervous. Second-string, I said. We unbutton, unzip, unhook, undo, unravel. I don’t remember. I don’t remember going home. I don’t remember climbing down the edge of the bluff to get her shoes. I don’t remember us jumping the fence. I’m numb. My God do I want to fuck. Socks floating up there like little ghosts of Joanna Frank’s feet—
HE WAS AN odd lonely fat man, and when he met us at the door he’d make my brother and me kiss his ring. He’d hold out his hairy knuckles, and we had no choice but to bow and do it. He wasn’t the pope. He was a friend of my father’s. He’s been dead 20 years. My father didn’t really like him that much. The only reason we visited him was because he owned a car my father loved, a ’57 MG with a polished walnut steering wheel. After we kissed the ring, we always went through the house and out to the garage. We never drove in the car. We looked at it. My father held out hope that one day he might take it around the block.
Mr. Pomerantz talked incessantly, more incessantly than anyone I’ve ever known. My brother made up a story about him. He said that as a child, Mr. Pomerantz had survived Buchenwald because the Nazis didn’t believe that a starving Jew could be so fat. So they let him live. This of course didn’t stop them from murdering his mother with a pitchfork. My brother said this traumatic experience led him to his current life of ceaseless monologue. Talking protects him, my brother said. Don’t you get it? Babbling stomps the memories. If anybody else spoke, usually my brother or me (my father was too busy making love to the car), to ask when we were going to leave or at least could we have a piece of toast, Mr. Pomerantz would suddenly be deaf, cup his ear and shout, what’s that? One of the elves say something?
The ring was huge and made of green glass. It was like kissing a bulbous insect eye. Mr. Pomerantz said it was the gift of a pasha. I remember how smooth it felt against my lips. I remember wondering how many other people over the years had been forced to smooch it. Like most lonely people, he never dared look any of us in the eye. He considered himself what my mother would call a real character. He considered himself jolly and entertaining, and he must have waited long hours so he could prove this. So he could regale, first with his exquisite ring and then with his stories. If all else failed, there was always the car. His stories must have been dull or overly complicated, because I remember not a shred of them.
Mr. Pomerantz lived in a house surrounded by trophies collected during the endlessly fascinating life he could not tell us enough about. One thing I do remember is that he owned Stonewall Jackson’s saddle. His actual saddle, boys. Feel free to touch the leather. Feel free to touch everything here. This isn’t a museum! This is my life! Touch it! Touch it!
I’ll never know why certain people come back to me on certain days. I’m alone. I’m watching the park out the window. Mr. Pomerantz sits in his house as the noon sun holds steady and refuses to droop into afternoon. He doesn’t read one of his hundred thousand books. Every day I buy 10 books! 20 books! 30 books! Because he’s long since learned that words on a page aren’t much of an audience. Words on a page can’t be wowed. I hear his sigh-like farts. He avoids mirrors. He waits for the three of us to walk up his driveway on a Saturday in 1978. He worries we won’t come. He worries that all he needs to say will sink back down his throat and be lost for good. One day, a weekday, he goes out to the garage, stuffs himself in the front seat of the MG, and turns on the little engine.
He wasn’t the only one in our neighborhood to do it this way. There were two others. Mrs. Mueller, with her two kids watching cartoons in the house, and Mr. Bloom, the indicted stockbroker.
Self-Portrait in a Disinfectant Pool
AUGUST 1981. TWIN POOLS. They used to call the place Twin Toilets. I know I indulged a few times myself. There is nothing more beautiful than pissing in a pool. It’s hard to pinpoint why it’s so great. There is something about the engulfment of the water and your joining it, becoming one with the chlorine. Just let it go, brother. Let it go.
Two overcrowded swimming pools, side by side. It was where poor kids went to swim, a relative idea in Highland Park, Illinois. It was where kids like me who didn’t have a backyard pool or a friend with a backyard pool or a friend with a friend with a backyard—you get the idea. But it isn’t the toilets I want right now. It’s the disinfectant pool, the shallow rectangle you had to step in as soon as you came out of where you’d just pretended to take a shower. The water was frigid, colder even than the showers. Yet if you sidestepped the disinfectant pool, the lifeguards would throw you out. For the season. They would have rather somebody drown. You went quick. Step in, step out. Both feet! I said both feet!
Call this a vision of not too much. Myself, my big bowl of hair, my ill-fitting nylon Speedo too big, so it clung to my thighs and drooped in the middle where there was nothing much to fill it. Slight belly protruding. Unclipped toenails. Chubbled knees. Around this time, my mother sent me to see a psychologist. His name was Jack. He fed me Jay’s potato chips and Cokes. I liked going to see Jack. I loved the alternating tastes of salty chips and Cokes. I’d conduct science experiments in my mouth. There was this frizzle I could create if I ate and drank fast enough. Frizzle followed by operatic burps.
So you’re sad?
I guess so.
Why do you think you’re sad?
I don’t know. (Burp) I guess I feel guilty.
Guilty? Guilty about what?
I guess things I’ve done. Things I will do.
Things you will do? You mean in the future?
Hmmmm. I’d say that’s awfully sophisticated for someone your age. I’d say that’s to be commended. What sorts of things will you do to feel guilty about down the line?
I’m going to betray people.
Betray people? Whom?
People I love. (Burp) People I don’t love.
Well that about covers it. More chips?
Yes, Jack, please. More chips.
MEMORY’S FREAKISH. Today I’m trapped in 1981. And I can move from Dr. Jack’s to the pools without even getting on my bike and riding down Central Avenue past the Clark station, past the Jewel, the Style Shop, Eddy Loiseau’s house, up and over the overpass…I’ve just faked a shower. A little trickle of water on my shoulders. I come out and step into the little pool. Except that’s it. I don’t move. The cold stiffs my ankles. Chemicals kill the fungi on my feet. I’m going to stay here right here.
“Hey, green shorts—off the ropes!”
Right here like a statue, like a monument to a dead self. I don’t move. A strange alone kid being pushed from behind. Before me the great blue sewers.
“Get the fuck out of the way!”
Peter Orner’s most recent novel is Love and Shame and Love. He is also the author of Esther Stories and The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and the editor of two books of nonfiction, Underground America and Hope Deferred. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and The Best American Short Stories and has been awarded two Pushcart Prizes. He lives in San Francisco.